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When it came to playing tough, take-charge women and independent working girls, Barbara Stanwyck was the pro. If anything distinguished her work from other actresses in the Pre-Code period, it was her gravitation to roles which were the complete antithesis of what passed for socially accepted female characters on the screen. From her role as a hard luck hash slinger in Shopworn (1932) to her cynical prison inmate in Ladies They Talk About (1933), Stanwyck found a source of strength, vitality and defiance in these marginal characters. You could even say that her performance in Baby Face (1933) as a carnal and supremely calculating seductress was strong enough to hasten the implementation of the dreaded Code.
Baby Face, which ran into trouble with the MPPDA (Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America) before the first cut was even screened, is set in a rough steel mill town. Lily, nicknamed "Baby Face," works for her father in his sordid speakeasy and is often forced to perform sexual favors for paying customers. When an exploding still kills her father, Lily grabs a freight train out of town before his body is even cold. Upon arriving in New York City, she sweet-talks her way into a job at a bank and quickly sleeps her way to the top (a very young John Wayne is one of her first conquests), eventually marrying the bank president, Trenholm (George Brent). Pretty soon, her husband is embezzling money from the bank to keep Lily in luxury.
While some feminist film historians have accused Baby Face of being the most exploitive of Stanwyck's early movies, it was a film in which she enjoyed a creative collaboration with producer Darryl F. Zanuck who penned the original story under the pseudonym Mark Canfield. For instance, it was her suggestion that Lily's father force her to have sex with several men. Of course, the New York censors rejected the movie entirely and Warner Brothers had to make numerous changes, reshooting several scenes and adding new ones. The original climax, in which Trenholm commits suicide because Lily won't sell her jewels to bail him out of his financial crisis, was dropped and replaced with a phony upbeat ending which is too absurd to lessen the impact of all that has gone before. A seduction scene involving a railroad braceman was also axed and an important dialogue scene with Lily's only male friend, a cynical German immigrant, was completely rewritten so that his advice, "You must use men, not let them use you" became a moralistic warning, "There is a right way and a wrong way - remember the price of the wrong way is too great." (In 2006, Warner Video released a version of Baby Face on DVD in their "Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume 1" which included the two previously deleted scenes mentioned above).
In the end, a revised Baby Face slid in under the wire before the revised Production Code went into effect and still managed to offend the sensibilities of certain critics and audience members. A reviewer for The New York Evening Post said "You cannot escape the belief that Lily is a vixen of the lowest order and that the men who play with her are doomed to perish in the flames." Regardless of how it was received in its day, Baby Face remains one of Stanwyck's most potent performances and a final hurrah in Pre-Code cinema.
Director: Alfred E. Green
Producer: Raymond Griffith
Screenplay: Gene Markey, Kathryn Scola
Cinematography: James Van Trees
Editor: Howard Bretherton
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Lily "Baby Face" Powers), George Brent (Trenholm), Donald Cook (Stevens), Arthur Hohl (Sipple), Margaret Lindsay (Ann Carter), Arthur Hohl (Ed Sipple), John Wayne (Jimmy McCoy, Jr.).
BW-71m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford